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Does India have only three good colleges?

Indian Higher Education institutions, especially the Universities are in dire crisis and there is very little being done to reform them.

Meeta Sengupta
Published: 25, Apr 2013

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about

It is the season when Phil Baty and his Times Higher Education Rankings unleash a flurry of results, that invariably lead to a series of Op-Eds and articles that bemoan the terrible state of higher education in India.

I honour that tradition with this piece.

Firstly, it is disappointing to see the celebration surrounding the 3 IITs that have made it to the top 100 in the Asian list. The Asian list, not the global list. Just 3 of the IITs, which form the cream of educational institutions of the country. Serving a sixth of humanity. Serving a nation that claims to have soft power based on its graduates and engineers who turn the gears of the world’s businesses. Sorry, not good enough.

While these IITs did qualify to be ranked along with the world’s best universities, it is also true that they are not universities at all. Nor are they deemed universities. They are focused centres of excellence that do not have the drag of managing a range of departments as a typical university would. With such focus, they have an edge over other institutions and should indeed have performed better in the global rankings.

The celebration over the mention of these IITs also seems to let the other Universities off the hook. Since India is represented in the rankings, the others can carry on oblivious, and sooner or later into oblivion. Indian Higher Education institutions, especially the Universities are in dire crisis and there is very little being done to reform them. Any conversation about higher education reform still revolves around structures, regulations and procedures. This, being led by the supply side rather than a clear drive to lead for the future via granular understanding of the demand is the fatal flaw in reform design. If there is any reform designed.

Our Universities have serious governance issues. And a leadership crisis. For years faculty have been speaking of the politicisation of key positions in Universities. And it is true that not only in India, but globally, institutional excellence in education has been delivered by autonomous public institutions. Each of these have been led by strong leaders in their transformational years and it is these leaders that have created the ethos, personality and standards within these organisations. Present institution design does allow for strong political influences in leader selection which has corroded the institution of the educational leader.

It is not just politics but also a design issue that needs attention. Currently all three functions - operations, strategy and governance are vested in the single seat of the Vice Chancellor. While in theory these are delegated, with the Vice Chancellor holding over arching responsibility, in practice the VC does have to deal with the nitty gritty of each of these strands. Good governance demands a separation of these functions.. a compliance officer cannot be the same as the operations officer. Conflicts of interest should be managed by counter balancing roles and people (assuming they are honest) for good decisions to be made. The design of organisations and procedures in higher education needs serious reform, and needs to be built around serving their core client - the students. Universities are not built for bureaucracy, they are built to create and disseminate knowledge.

Any changes or reforms in the University system need to be well thought through before they are implemented -as one would expect from a body of intellectuals who teach students rigorous thinking within their subject area. Yet, one of the largest changes we have seen recently is the move to a four year semester based system in Delhi University. The professors, who deal with the details have gone as far as to support an open petition against this move. Senior professors rightly point out that three to four months is inadequate to move over to a new course design and seek more time to question the need for this change. While the four year degree is supposed to match the duration of the degree in the West, there has been little work done on what exactly the extra year is supposed to contribute to the development of the student. It is also interesting that this change is proposed as the conversation in the West has started to move towards the possibility of three year degrees due to cost pressures. What is worse about the proposed four year degree is that the intent of creating a liberal arts kind of free flowing first year is not borne out in practice - students actually have very little choice or flexibility in their choices of minor subjects. The synergies that were expected to be gained from multidisciplinarity cannot be harvested as the idea does not map to operational design.

Stakeholders question the need for this change - who will it really serve? Will it make for better quality education? Or do we need other models to make Indian Higher education hold its own in the world. Would more private participation, international collaboration help? Or should there be more autonomy and accountability and less policing? Should there be more and better peer learning such as via the Higher Education Forum (disclaimer, I am a member and a node for the Delhi chapter) that self organises faculty development programs. Is this a central responsibility, a federated one or a local one?

The issue really is not about international rankings, which perform a limited (though important role) in understanding and benchmarking for quality. The Times rankings put a high weightage on international connections within higher education, and this has not been a priority for Indian Higher Education so far. Since the domestic demand for higher education seats, especially at the better institutions, is so high - there is little reason to seek students from other countries in large numbers. Research collaborations are few and far between since most Universities are de facto more teaching institutions than research hubs - and this is a hole that must be plugged. At the same time, the rankings do point to the gaps in achievement. This is borne out by anecdotal evidence and industry reports that state that most graduates are barely functionally literate and almost unemployable. Clearly the universities are failing in the twin core functions of creating employable youth, and that of creating bodies of knowledge via research that is acknowledged and useful around the world.

As Indian universities continue to fail their students, they will see more of the creamy layer go away to different countries for higher education. Technology, including variations of the popular MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) will reduce the centrality of the mediocre universities or indifferent professors, reducing them to examination and certification centres. To stem the rot, to become relevant and respected again, Indian Higher Education will need to take a good hard look at itself and design its reinvention. In this re-invention they will be well advised to work on the principles of the centrality of the learner and on the inexorable necessity of good governance.

  • Oriental School

    Nice post.

    on Jun 16, 2016
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  • Jaspal Singh

    The number of universities in India is not small. But these are are loosely organized. These are unable to perform appropriate functions to achieve their goals. Despite the presence of a few excellent scholars here and there, the quality of education imparted therein is poor. Top heavy, large-sized para-educational establishment, heavy expenditure on buildings, traveling allowance , hospitality. Each selection committee appoints the weakest candidate. There is much too much emphasis on examinations, at the cost of teaching and research. Extra-curricular studies, practical training, are neglected. These days, drug-abuse, alcoholism have crossed all limits.....

    on Jun 4, 2013
  • prof. n m khandelwal

    nice write up. it is all maya of accreditation and ranking business. several four and five star acrredited universities are without full time faculties in several departments. any social accountability of rating and accreditation agencies? obvious conflict of interest arises when accreditation fee is paid by the institute to be evaluated, luxury entertainment cost is borne and......................to have a high grade which they hardly deserve.

    on May 21, 2013
  • Shahebaz

    Good article. Write more.

    on May 9, 2013
  • Dilip

    Is Ph. D. a measure of creativity and excellence? What is the meaning of Ph.D.? To me, Ph.D. means creating a product / process / system that did not exist before. So if Ph.D. means CREATiNG something that did not exist (=invent), or FiNDiNG something that existed but was not known (=discover), then why does one need a Guide? I am myself a Bharat Sarkar Qualified & Authorized Tourist GUiDE. I am a GUiDE because I have knowledge of the subject, which was taught to me. I attended classes and did field trips and learned. And I further disseminate this knowledge to people (=tourists) who are interested. Thus I am a GUiDE because I have been there==I know what it is, where it is, and how to get there. Now if Ph.D. is==creating something that did not exist, why do I need a GUiDE? How can someone who has not been there before, GUiDE me to the place (=destination) to which the GUiDE himself has not been before? Can a person who has not himself been to the South Pole or Mount Everest show me the way to go to South Pole / Mount Everest? Was Pythagoras a Ph. D.? Was Archimedes a Ph. D.? Was Newton a Ph. D. ? It is a question of making money. Today getting a GUiDE for Ph. D. costs Lakhs. Ph.D. is a lot of nonsense. It is a money making racket. In fact it is absolutely bureaucratic. In fact I would call it BUREAU--RACKET !

    on May 1, 2013
  • ramesh

    Having received two degrees from top most of the three and having worked in world ranking universities I feel that we should focus on the guidelines used by THE in grading and ranking the universities. If any Indian university professor gets noble prize the university rank will go to top. Other criteria should also be kept in mind and I don't see any reason why the figure should not reach two digits very soon

    on Apr 30, 2013
  • Meenakshi R

    Well-researched, very articulate and beautifully-presented, Meeta!

    on Apr 30, 2013
  • Abraham Varughese

    The Indian higher education is a lucrative investment avenue for many rich investors who can buy a few acres of land and start building concrete structures. Except a few percent of institution, the managements invest heavily on promotion than investing on quality improving activities. The Quality of faculties , number of faculties in the department etc are far below the requirement in many colleges. AICTE has specified many 'minimum requirements' in their process manual and the managements even submit the undertaking every year stating that they have all facilities in their college. But even AICTE itself failed to verify and ensure that these facilities are available. This is supported by the news like 'Anna University issued notice to 200 engineering colleges on lack of facilities' or 'poor standard of many engineering colleges in Kerala'. Who will regulate the quality of education? Then how will more institutions come in the 'Top institutions' in Asia or world?

    on Apr 29, 2013
  • Atul Trivedi

    Issue is not only leadership crisis or governance issues and or design. We look at politics, quality research or lack of it, rankings, technology but these are symptoms not the cause. The ecosystem in which higher education exists and functions can yield only these outcomes. Question is is anyone interested in Higher Education to do any differently ? I do not see any urgency or commitment. Most of the high-pitched high-decibel noise that we hear occasionally are all motivated agenda driven by self-promotion rather than a well thought out plan. This is one sector of economy which should have been creativity driven but is beset with complete lack of direction and without any freedom from license-permit-quota-raj which may be diminishing in some sectors but continues to thrive in higher education with all kinds of protectionism. One of the issues which can solve many problems is with issue of funding. Self-funding with government meeting costs for those it wants to support e.g. gender, minority, economically weaker, caste-discriminated, merit, region-based , etc by making payment to the institution. In one stroke it will do away with politics, bring in system of governance, accountability, quality ( as paying wards will demand quality) and also learning.

    on Apr 26, 2013
  • Dr. Sanjay Banerji

    Indian Higher Education faces the dual challenge of achieving quality, and at the same time offer higher education opportunities to ever increasing number of young boys and girls completing their higher secondary education. Our GER is one of the lowest in Asia, lower than countries like Thailand and Malayasia. We also have not changed the curriculum from the British era, that was designed to produce primarily clerks or 'Babus'. There is a huge shortage of artisans and technical personnel, willing to dirty the hands, not only in India but all over the globe. India could well become the supplier for this manpower, provided we paid attention. The move for outcome based accreditation, and making accreditation mandatory (and ridding the process free from corruption) could also help. A thorough overhaul of the entire system, taking into account the needs on the ground should be undertaken.

    on Apr 26, 2013
  • Moron

    Why we fail to understand a very simple but extreme difference between an Indian university and university overseas? Any Indian university has a huge range of colleges under it. For example, Mumbai university has probably more than 1000 colleges, atleast 100+ engineering colleges alone. From the very best of VJTI to average Abu Siddique to unknown colleges. How can you judge Mumbai university when it is nothing but an umbrella? If something needs to be ranked in India, then it is the college, not the university. Not many here will know which university the former REC falls under Foreigner will never be able to understand all these complexities. For them VJTI and YD Patil are same as both falls under Mumbai university.

    on Apr 26, 2013
    • Peodair

      There is a precedent here; the (mostly sizeable) colleges of the University of London are each ranked separately (UCL, Kings, LSE etc; formerly Imperial). The only problem is, among the best Delhi and Mumbai colleges - at least the most selective - are institutions that are more like small Oxbridge colleges (St Stephens, St Xavier - these are certainly well regarded globally). So the irony is, IITs may not be universities but they are more like the universities that Times Higher is trying to rank than the universities and deemed universities are.

      on Apr 27, 2013
  • Peodair

    I think it's just a matter of the instrument not picking up the pockets of excellence that there are. Do you think that presidents of Williams, Amherst, Haverford and Wellesley are crying because the rankings don't pick up on their quality? Or that Princeton and Cal Tech look at how the rankings have had to be trained and weighted to accommodate their quality (less the rankings lose plausibility among those who know) and fancy their chances of upscaling their operations?

    on Apr 25, 2013
  • rkarya

    indian universities were really very good when the demand of engineers was quite normal. the government has gone in for rapid industrialisation and had given opportunities to private entrepreneurs to take over the reign of education from the government. the government has removed its attention from the proper funding of the universities and in some cases have told that adhoc faculty is good enough to complete the job assigned to the universities. competition has been completely wiped out from the indian universities. there are no competent teachers and students are just completing their formalities.

    on Apr 25, 2013
  • Dr.A.Jagadeesh

    Excellent article. Today Education has become more commercial mainly at School and college level. Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    on Apr 25, 2013
  • Dr Ramesh Kumar Madaan

    Meeta Sen Gupta deserve appreciation for raising the contemporary issue of relevance in the context of governance and leadership crises prevailing in the educational system.The Vice-Chancellors, Director -General ,Registrars ,Principals et al are above the law of the land . ,There is an urgent need to think ,review , realise and change the mind set and improve the system in proper perspective in the larger interest of the Nation

    on Apr 25, 2013
  • Sidharam Halikhed

    Can we ever move away from the rankings and look at the number of people those who are working across the globe. Where are they from, majority of them are from these under-performing, as per the ranking list, education sector. I am not saying, that our eduction sector great, but we look at the up west and look down at ourselves. Though, it of Asia, which country has contributed like India to the globe? Can we change our lens for some time?

    on Apr 25, 2013
    • Peodair

      That's a good point you end on. The Asia-specific ranking somehow attempts to gauge what it means to be an elite university in Asia, while at the same time discouraging mere local eliteness. While it's true that IITs (Ms etc) are not actually universities, but rather an Indian adaptation of a somewhat similar concept elsewhere, deemed universities are also an Indian variation. Furthermore, institutions that are straight universities like Dehli especially have taken the neo-collegiate concept of the University of London beyond anything ever attempted outside India - Dehli may be hopelessly bureaucratic, but it is also committed to advancing democratic principles in a way those in the know outside India marvel at.

      on Apr 25, 2013
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